The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
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HOUSE OF DECEIT. The Housemaid, a thriller about an innocent young woman caught in the twisted web of a rich family’s games, opens March 4 at Portland’s Living Room Theaters. Pictured are live-in nanny and housekeeper Eun-yi (right) and Hae-ra (left), the pregnant, yoga-practicing wife of the household. (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)
From The Asian Reporter, V21, #04 (February 21, 2011), page 13.
Stylish new thriller lambastes Korea’s upper class
Directed by Sang-soo Im
Produced by Jason Chae
Distributed by IFC Films
Opening March 4 at Living Room Theaters,
S.W. 10th Avenue & S.W. Stark Street, Portland
By Allison Voigts
The Asian Reporter
She’s like Dostoevsky’s Idiot," says Mi-hee (Ji-young Park) when describing the childish, all-too-trusting protagonist of The Housemaid. But like the nihilists the Russian author railed against, this slick new thriller by director Sang-soo Im — recently screened as part of the 34th annual Portland International Film Festival — lambastes modern Korean society without offering even a faint glimmer of hope.
A remake of Ki-young Kim’s 1960 film of the same name — widely considered one of the best Korean films of all time — The Housemaid follows a young woman, Eun-yi (Do-youn Jeon), from her squalid life working in a noodle shop to her new calling as a live-in nanny and housekeeper for a wealthy family.
The picture of health, beauty, and bourgeois interests, the family consists of Hoon, a perfectly sculpted businessman with a taste for red wine; Hae-ra, his pregnant, yoga-practicing wife; and their precocious, eerily vigilant daughter Nami. With the icy guidance of long-time housekeeper Miss Cho, Eun-yi learns to care for her charges with perfect precision, serving their espresso, scrubbing the bathroom, and personally washing Hae-ra’s undergarments.
But as she skips lightheartedly through her duties (with surprising ease, given her uniform of high heels and a pencil skirt), the young heroine attracts more than a professional interest from the family patriarch. Hoon’s lingering glances and piano serenades quickly evolve into late-night visits to the housemaid’s quarters that are both welcome and significantly predatory.
With Miss Cho skulking in the eaves, it isn’t long before the entire house learns of the affair, and a series of unfortunate events threatens the naïve young maid’s life and sanity. Under the instruction of her villainous mother (Park), Hae-ra attempts to exert control over the household as the balance of power swings wildly between the enraged wife, the omniscient Miss Cho, and the irrepressible Eun-yi.
Like Joon-ho Bong’s "Mother" (Mother, 2009), the housemaid is an unexpected force to be reckoned with rather than a country bumpkin who can be easily disposed of. The plot turns the hierarchy of power on its head as Eun-yi becomes increasingly unhinged. As the impassive Miss Cho gets more and more involved in her protégé’s predicament, the formerly submissive duo demonstrates — perhaps intentionally, perhaps not — the true helplessness of the rich, even in their own home.
A favorite at last year’s Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals, The Housemaid moves adeptly between genres, from thriller to dark comedy to horror all the way to its shocking ending, with strong performances from some of Korea’s brightest stars, including Jeon, who took away the Best Actress award in Cannes for her work in Secret Sunshine.
But Miss Cho and Eun-yi — both promising, complex characters until the final few minutes of the film — ultimately sink in a mire of confused motives and unmet potential that can’t be redeemed by the film’s shock value. The family also becomes increasingly cartoonish, with Hae-ra and her mother playing the part of comic book villains.
And while the original Housemaid depicted the urban middle class in crisis at a time when Korea was undergoing rapid economic change, Sang-soo Im’s grotesque portrait of upward mobility 50 years later feels dated. His pointed criticism of capitalism and mid-century American culture, while intriguingly rendered in the film’s final scene, is a disjointed addition to a movie that fails to satisfy cinematically.
The Housemaid opens March 4 at Living Room Theaters, located at S.W. 10th Avenue & S.W. Stark Street in Portland. To obtain showtimes, call (971) 222- 2010 or visit <www.livingroomtheaters.com>. The film is also playing on the IFC Film channel on demand through April 26. For more information, visit <www.ifcfilms.com/films/the-housemaid>.